Wednesday 21 August 2019

Stormont crisis as all non-DUP members walk out ahead of Arlene Foster's statement on energy scheme

Row upon row of empty benches in Parliament Buildings, Belfast after all non-Democratic Unionist members walked out ahead of First Minister Arlene Fosters statement on her role in a botched renewable energy scheme. Photo PA Wire
Row upon row of empty benches in Parliament Buildings, Belfast after all non-Democratic Unionist members walked out ahead of First Minister Arlene Fosters statement on her role in a botched renewable energy scheme. Photo PA Wire

David Young

The Stormont Assembly has been plunged into crisis after all non-Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) members walked out ahead of a disputed statement by the First Minister on her role in a botched renewable energy scheme.

In unprecedented scenes, DUP leader Arlene Foster addressed row upon row of empty benches in Parliament Buildings in Belfast, with only party faithful remaining in the chamber in the seats behind her.

The bitter row unfolded after Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness withdrew his approval for Mrs Foster to appear to explain her role in an error-ridden scheme that has left the Northern Ireland taxpayer facing an overspend bill of an estimated £400 million.

All statements by Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness's joint office need the support of both sides of the powersharing executive.

Mr McGuinness's move prompted members from all parties but the DUP to question the validity of Mrs Foster's appearance.

The Sinn Fein veteran said her remarks could only be viewed as a personal statement.

When she did rise to her feet, Mrs Foster reiterated her apology for not introducing cost controls in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

The DUP leader said it was the deepest regret of her time in office.

"Not for one minute do I want to shirk or avoid responsibility," she added.

Before the extraordinary walkout, Mr McGuinness told the media: "The statement does not have my authority or approval as Deputy First Minister.

"She is speaking in a personal capacity and not in her role as First Minister."

After Mrs Foster's statement, the Assembly is due to debate an SDLP motion of no confidence in the First Minister.

However, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has said the party "are not looking for an election" but acknowledged it could be a consequence of today's actions.

"It may well be but that's what happens when Governments fall out or when Governments fall," he told RTE Radio One.

"Martin McGuinness spoke to Arlene about these matters privately. We didn't want, in a crass way [to put] this into the public arena," he said.

He denied that the party's relationship with the DUP has broken down as a result of todays actions.

"We will continue to talk with Arlene Foster and we will continue to talk with the DUP," he said, adding that there was a lot of work to be done in relation to equality, the Irish language and budget agreement.

Mr Adams said the party want an independent investigation into the matter, which will vindicate Ms Foster is she is correct in her statements.

The row threatening the peace-building institutions has erupted over the controversial energy scheme - set up by Mrs Foster - which paid out subsidies well in excess of the costs of buying renewable fuel.

First Minister Arlene Foster gives a statement on her role in a botched renewable energy scheme at Parliament Buildings, Belfast. Picture PA Wire
First Minister Arlene Foster gives a statement on her role in a botched renewable energy scheme at Parliament Buildings, Belfast. Picture PA Wire

Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next 20 years for heating an empty shed.

The "cash for ash" scandal reached fever pitch last week when former DUP economy minister Jonathan Bell broke ranks to level a series of explosive claims against his leader and party advisers.

In an extraordinary TV interview, a tearful Mr Bell said God told him to come clean as he claimed a "highly agitated and angry" Mrs Foster demanded he keep the RHI open for an extra fortnight despite its huge losses.

Mrs Foster strongly rejected the claims. Mr Bell was suspended by the party over the weekend.

On Monday, Mr Bell claimed he had an email in his possession that contained critical information about the scandal.

He said he was being prevented from publishing details of the message and called for that ban to be lifted.

Mrs Foster told the three-quarters empty House that lessons would be learned and attempts made to mitigate the overspend.

"I am not immune to the considerable anger and frustration this issue has caused; not only do I understand it, I feel it too," she said.

After her statement, the DUP leader fielded questions from with her fellow MLAs.

She lambasted the rival politicians for walking out.

"For weeks now people have been calling on me to come forward, calling on me to go before the PAC (Public Accounts Committee). I said I would go to the PAC, that wasn't good enough. I'd say I'd come to this House, I would set out the facts, I would take questions from members of this House and where are they, where are they?

"The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than this. The people of Northern Ireland will look at this today and say 'What is all this about?'"

Much of the scrutiny on Mrs Foster has focused on how she responded to concerns raised by a whistleblower during her time as economy minister.

There was a flurry of claims and counter claims last week on whether the individual raised concerns directly to Mrs Foster, or if she only outlined them after Mrs Foster passed her on to meet with her officials.

The DUP published an email from the whistleblower last week that made no mention of her RHI concerns - the party cited it to demand an apology from those who had asserted she should have done more.

However, another email has since emerged, that was sent directly to Mrs Foster in 2013, that did raise specific concerns about the scheme.

Addressing the issue in the chamber, Mrs Foster said her former economy department owed the whistleblower an apology.

"She deserves our high respect and a sincere apology on behalf of my former department, which should not have dismissed her claims with disbelief, but examined them with diligence," she said.

"It is no exaggeration to say that had she been listened to on any of the three occasions when she approached DETI, this crisis would have been avoided."

In regard to what information was passed directly to her, the DUP leader added: "Unfortunately, it has been difficult to establish the exact facts around contact between this concerned citizen and myself and the department."

PA Media

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News